You all know the Golden Rule, right? “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Treat people the way you would want to be treated. Obviously this breaks down slightly in some cases (see for instance the recent flap in furry fandom about hugs–many people want to be hugged all the time, and so they go about hugging people, but there are many people who do not want to be hugged by random people they don’t know), but it’s still not bad as a rule of thumb.
I’ve generally tried my best to practice a different but related rule, and a couple of pieces I ran across on the Internet recently led me to concretize that. So here goes:
Listen, and try to understand.
There was a post on Tumblr about how to write POC if you are not one. It is long and all of it is worth reading and I read it because now when I see posts about “how to write difficult topics” I want to read them. I might never need to use them (I spent approximately eight million hours reading everyone’s opinion on a recent high-profile fictional rape just because I wanted to understand them, not because there is a rape scene coming up in any one of my books). The POC thing is less relevant when I’m writing about foxes and tigers; more relevant as some of my upcoming books feature more furless characters.
Then today I read “5 Things Cis People Can Do For Trans People,” and hey, what do you know, it follows many of the same lines as the other piece. Both of them serve as a handy rule for how to interact with people in the world generally, because what they boil down to is “listen to them tell their own stories.”
Our world is changing fast–by “our world,” I mean the experiential world for each one of us. Trans people and gay people and bisexual people and asexual people and all kinds of other people who are not straight white males have always been around; we are only just starting to hear them express their stories in their own voices because the Internet allows it. Take advantage of this.
Listen, and try to understand.
It is easy to say hurtful things unintentionally because you don’t know they’re hurtful. But look, we don’t live in a Kids in the Hall sketch. You can listen before you talk, ask questions sincerely, and apologize if something’s taken the wrong way. And this goes the other way, too: be patient with people who are trying to understand, and take the time to help.
At a party a couple years ago, the host and I were talking about him coming to Further Confusion, and another nearby guest said, “Oh, isn’t that the thing where people dress up in costumes to have sex?” It’d be easy to get upset at that, but she honestly didn’t know. So I took a few minutes and explained the fandom a little better, and she took the time to listen.
It is a natural behavior as we grow older to rely on our accumulated knowledge, to impose the structure we already understand to be true on new phenomena. From an evolutionary standpoint, we’re wired this way. It takes energy to go find out exactly what some new thing is about, and if your knowledge accurately describes 95% of your known world, it’s a waste of your energy. If, you know, you’re struggling every day to find food and mates and avoid predators. I think we have a little more energy to spare these days, and as I said, our world is changing so much that our established knowledge doesn’t cover 95% of it anymore. There are times I feel like I barely understand my immediate surroundings.
So yeah, we are scrambling to keep up with this changing world, and grasping at any little pieces of information we can. We read a post on Facebook that says one thing, a tweet that says another, and we try desperately to use those to make sense of people we haven’t encountered before. But when you try to fit new (to you) kinds of people into the world you already know, or use second- and third-hand information to classify them, you are diminishing those people. You’re imposing your worldview on their lives. “Furries are people who dress in costumes to have sex.” “There’s no such thing as bisexuals; you’re either gay or you’re straight.” “Being gay is a choice you make.”
And okay, if that’s not enough for you (it should be), you are losing the opportunity to broaden your own world. New people bring new insights and new experiences and new life. Even if you are only trying to get through life being respectful to people, but especially oh my god if you are trying to be a writer, you should be zealously seeking out new experiences, new points of view, making your world bigger and broader and full of exciting people. And people will be more willing to talk to you and share their lives and listen to you share your life if you listen to them.
In the end, you could distill this rule down to one word: respect. You can’t expect to receive it from others unless you give it yourself.
Last year, an old college friend came out to me as trans. And the single behavior that drives her crazy is when people tell her what she’s supposed to feel instead of listening and asking questions. “You can’t use Eddie Izzard as a role model; he’s not really trans.” “If you think you’re a woman, that must mean you like guys.” “So you must be saving up for surgery.” Shit like that. She doesn’t know where her journey’s going. She’s just tremendously excited to be on it. And what she wants more than anything is for people to be excited with her, to let her tell them about all the things she’s feeling and going through. To listen. And to try to understand.
[EDIT: My trans friend has said that while she prefers no pronouns at all, she appreciates the difficulty of that situation, and while she doesn’t mind either one depending on how people know her, the female pronoun makes her feel happier. She said I didn’t have to change the post, but why would I not?]